Having taken a bit of a detour, let’s return to Romans 1.
In Romans, Paul lays out the dire situation of all humanity in bondage to Sin. Both Jews and Gentiles are caught in that bondage. In Chapter 1, he focuses his attention on Gentiles. From a Jewish perspective, Gentiles are, by definition, guilty of idolatry. Though Paul asserts that there is sufficient evidence in creation for them to know better, they neither honor God as God nor give thanks to him (1:21). Instead, they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (1:23).
Of course, in the ancient world “literal” idolatry was pervasive. But, idolatry is more than worshiping images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. We can exchange the glory of the immortal God for almost anything: Family, money/Mammon, Nation/Flag/Patriotism, Political Ideology, Fame/Reputation, Violence, Vengeance, Race, Security, Pleasure, Sex, the Mirror, etc. When we give such things our ultimate allegiance and allow them to shape our imagination we make gods of them which distorts our thinking and disorients us morally.
When people exchange the worship of God for the things God created, they lose moral perspective and control (see Wisdom 12:23-13:10 and 14:9-31). They become “futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds are darkened” (1:21). They are thus subject to “every kind of wickedness” (1:29).
The sexual licentiousness Jews attributed to Gentiles was part of this. And it was not hard in the Greco-Roman world to see a connection between idolatry and sexual licentiousness. Images of the phallus were ubiquitous (here). And all sorts of sexual goings-on were common in and around pagan temples (see the first comment below taken from “But the Bible says...”? A Catholic reading of Romans 1 by James Allison). The evidence confirming that Gentiles were sexually out of control was everywhere.
Paul points to same-sex sexual encounters as a particular example of this:
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27)
As we have seen, such behavior was evidence of the out of control behavior that results from idolatry. Same-sex intercourse was seen as one extreme example of licentiousness.
But, let’s be clear. Paul asserts that idolatry leads to "every kind of wickedness":
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:28-31)
Verses 26-31 should be read as a whole. The attitudes and behaviors Paul lists are all similar in his mind.
So, how might this passage of Holy Scripture apply to us today?
First, though literal idolatry is rare in our context, idolatry (as in the examples in the second paragraph above) is no less pervasive here and now than it was then and there. It is just more subtle. Partly because it is more subtle it is easier to fall into and because it is less obvious we can fool ourselves into thinking we are not guilty. But, it still can lead us to accept and do things that are contrary to the way of Jesus and fill us with every kind of wickedness. It is not the point of this series, but I think Christians would do well to take more seriously the temptation of idolatry and the possibility that we are more idolatrous than we would like to think.
More specifically, what does this passage teach us about the phenomenon of same-sex sexual attraction?
First, I want to repeat again that every reader of scripture reads with a perspective that includes rules, conscious or unconscious, which determine how they interpret what they read. I laid out some of my basic approach to interpreting scripture here: Some Thoughts on Interpreting Scripture. Among other things, I pointed out that according to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call ‘actualization’ of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities. One does not have to be Roman Catholic to find this a valuable guide to interpretation:
Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary... to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people”. (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV.3)
While there are plausible – maybe even probable – interpretations of scripture “contrary to evangelical justice and charity,” i.e., that endorse racism, anti-semitism, sexism, etc., they are to be avoided. Interpretations that reflect and reinforce justice and charity are more faithful to the Good News of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that this principle makes space for asking whether or not we should be wary of reading biblical texts about homosexuality as referring in a straightforward way to what we are talking about now.
I believe that, given the logic of Romans 1, we should indeed be wary of “actualization” of the text as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities. In the previous two posts in the series we saw the importance of self-control for Paul and his contemporaries and the common understanding that homosexual behavior was a matter of out of control sexual desire. Is the reality Paul is talking about necessarily the same thing we are talking about?
How should we now understand gay and lesbian Christians who are no more idolatrous than the rest of us and give every evidence of worshiping of God in Christ and honoring God as God and giving thanks to him? And love God and neighbor? And demonstrate self-control and self-denying discipline in their desire to follow Jesus and be formed in his image? Who are not dominated by passions and who build up the body of Christ? And who resist the evils listed in Romans 1:28-31 and elsewhere? And give testimony to their experience of same-sex attraction being different from that described in Romans 1 and elsewhere? And that it is not a matter of their choosing but an ingrained part of their personal identity?
It doesn’t work to say that in spite of all that, their same-sex attraction is itself idolatrous. That is not the logic of Paul’s argument. His argument is that idolatry leads to loss of perspective and self-control which leads to out of control sexual behavior among other things. But, what if gays and lesbians demonstrate that they are no more out of control than anyone else, but their same-sex attraction is an inherent part of them?
Another common approach is to argue that indelible same-sex attraction is a product of the brokenness resulting from the Fall. But, that also does not fit Paul’s logic. For Paul, out of control sinful behavior he is talking about is the result of the prior decision to turn from the glory of God and worship something less than God. As we have seen, the assumption is that homosexual behavior was understood to be just such out of control behavior. As such it was an extreme example of fornication to which all are similarly tempted. We know that gays and lesbians, like heterosexuals, can choose to be licentious, promiscuous, and adulterous. But, given the fixed nature of most same-sex attraction, it is different from those. And it is not a consequence of choosing idolatry over honoring God.
Gay and lesbian Christians are not idolatrous. If they honor God and give him thanks and demonstrate self-control that leads to love and the building up of the community, then it is hard to see how what Paul is writing against in Romans 1 actually applies to them. The out of control sexual behavior Paul is talking about here is not what we are talking about given how we understand the phenomenon of same-sex attraction. It is not what we are talking about when we talk about committed, self-sacrificial same-gender unions that reflect all the disciplines and commitments of traditional marriage. I suggest that that opens space for the Church to rethink its teaching on the matter.
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Romans 1 (iv) Idolatry, self-control, and same-sex sex